One way to determine how long someone has been surfcasting in the Northeast is their association with the words “Mullet Run.” Most anglers who first picked up a surf rod in the last 10, maybe even the last 20, years probably associate the mullet run with blitzing tarpon and snook in the far-off land of Florida. The Sunshine State’s ever-growing population of fishing YouTubers have flooded our feeds with eye-popping visuals of baitfish rivers and feasting gamefish.
Anglers who began surfcasting in the 1990s or earlier probably remember when scenes like that played out with stripers and blues during the Northeast’s own mullet run.
The mullet’s significance to surfcasters increases the further south you go. North of Cape Cod, they are a non-factor. Fishermen begin to appreciate them in Rhode Island, where their brief run still brings 20-plus-pound stripers into the surf. On the south shore of Long Island, fishermen still ply the September surf with blue-backed poppers, hoping for a return of the mullet mayhem from yesteryear. Surfcasters in New Jersey, when they aren’t casting lures at roving schools of unbothered mullet, use fresh or frozen mullet on bait rigs.
My earliest surf-fishing memories are of my dad and I doing exactly that. We’d get a pack of frozen finger mullet from Gibson’s Bait and Tackle in Sea Isle City or the Sea Gull Shop in Ocean City, cut them in half, and hook them on rigs fitted with brightly color Styrofoam floats. This was right around the time when New Jersey’s mullet run was transitioning from a highly anticipated annual blitz to just another fishery that “ain’t what it used to be.”
The mullets are a large family of fish, with 78 species found in coastal temperate and tropical waters all around the world. In the Northeast, our most common is the striped mullet.
Striped mullet are considered “catadromous,” meaning they spawn in salt water but spend significant parts of their lives in fresh water. These fish feed on plankton and plant material, often sifting it out of the sand and mulch. In parts of their substantial range (Brazil to Nova Scotia), striped mullet grow to impressive sizes. The IGFA lists the world record for striped mullet at 10 pounds, 6 ounces. Mullet spawn in the late fall and early winter, migrating offshore to do so, which is what draws them out of the estuaries and along the beaches in September and October.
Fishermen talking about “finger” or “corncob” mullet are still referring to the striped mullet at different stages of its life, in the same way that a striper can be a “schoolie” or a “cow.”
In New Jersey, corncob mullet, fish of 8 or 9 inches, were spoken of reverently, as a deadly live bait for big fish. While making my rounds of Cape May County’s lighted docks and bridges one night, I came across a pair of anglers who had cast-netted a couple corncobs and were in the process of finding a big weakfish to feed them to. Tiderunner weakfish, they said, couldn’t resist a big mullet, and in the right locations, a frantically swimming corncob would almost always tempt a 30-plus-inch weakie.
Finger mullet are far more common. At 3 to 5 inches, these baitfish end up on the menu of a wide range of surf-dwelling species, from stripers and blues to weakfish and fluke. Toward the mid-Atlantic, mullet are a staple for speckled trout and puppy drum.
What Happened to the Mullet Run?
Theories abound as to why the mullet run ain’t what it used to be. Old surfcasters wax nostalgic about big rivers of mullet, schoolies that would rival what Florida sees, pouring out of the inlets and amassing along the beaches. Today, the mullet schooles aren’t as large, so perhaps they aren’t attracting the same attention they once did from migrating blues and bass. Other fishermen suggest that the striper migration no longer lines up with the mullet run, and that the bass just aren’t around when the mullet migrate through. Yet others say the populations of “resident” stripers, the fish that live out the summer in New York and New Jersey, are down, and that those were the fish the mullet drew into the surf.
Whatever the reason, the mullet run hasn’t produced the blitzes of big bass and jumbo blues in recent years—but this doesn’t mean you should totally ignore the migration of these cigar-shaped baitfish. Fluke, and what seems to be a rebounding population of weakfish, will most definitely be coming out for this year’s mullet run. If you’re looking for a shore-caught doormat, this is the time.
Fishing the Mullet Run
To make the most of the run, fish the bait live. Cast-netted finger mullet live relatively well in a bucket equipped with a portable aerator, provided you don’t overcrowd it. Just make sure you have a lid! Mullet are jumpers and will launch clear of any uncovered container. If you aren’t seeing any fish actively harassing schools of mullet, take your live baits to fish-holding structures like bridges, jetties, or piers. Fish them on a light circle or live-bait hook, placing the hook into the mullet’s mouth and out one of the nostrils. Gingerly cast the bait toward structure. If there’s heavy current or the baitfish is too frisky, adding a small rubber-core weight to the sinker can help slow the bait down and get it into the strike zone.
Dead mullet, fished on “Fireball” or whole-mullet rigs are a good bet for bluefish, weakfish, fluke, and maybe even a stray red drum. Fish the baits in troughs, near sandbar cuts, or in bowls on open-sand beaches.
Spiking a mullet-baited surf rod while soaking up some September sunshine might not get the heart pumping the way casting into an ocean boiling with bass and blues does, but it’s still a great way to ease into the mayhem of the fall run.